Bill could benefit children of inmates

Proposed trust fund would be first of its kind in the nation

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania may soon be the first in the nation to create a financial lifeline to higher learning and educational programs for the children of inmates.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation, Senate Bill 790, to create the First Chance Trust Fund, a public charitable trust used to create scholarships and grants for educational programs for the children of incarcerated parents and other at risk-youth.

“If a child has a parent or both parents who commit a crime and go to jail, those folks are just left to fend for themselves or fall into the social network,” said Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, during the committee meeting. “The purpose of this bill is to have a pot of money to help work with these kids.”

“We know the high likelihood of those children following the same path that their parents followed,” he added.

The trust fund, to be overseen by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, is projected to collect $500,000 to $1 million annually through private, tax-deductible donations and a 1 percent surcharge on vendors that have a contract with the Department of Corrections that exceeds $5 million.

No taxpayer dollars would be used to fund the trust, and regions with high high-school dropout rates and risks of incarceration, as well as crime rates, will be prioritized.

The proposal, which was developed with support from the Corrections Secretary John Wetzel,

is intended to address inmates’ children’s predisposition to prison life.

More than 81,000 children in Pennsylvania have incarcerated parents, and approximately 65 percent of inmates have at least one child, according to the DOC.

“We are excited the Senate is proactively attacking crime by creating a unique funding stream to impact the lives of at-risk kids including those affected by incarceration,” wrote DOC spokeswoman Amy Worden in an email after the meeting.

The bill received only one negative vote from Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr.,

R-Blair, who recommended a sunset provision be added to the bill, as well as a provision establishing an auditing process to assess its success down the road.

The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

The committee also unanimously approved four other bills, including legislation to establish a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors.

“This legislation was introduced on a national level … but as we know, rape cases are primarily handled on the state level, not on the federal level,” said Sen. Stewart Green­leaf, R-Montgomery, of similar federal protections. “So this is an effort to have these protections and information available at the state level.”

Senate Bill 742 would give survivors the right to a free medical examination after their assault; to have the evidence of their examination preserved until the maximum, applicable statute of limitations expires; to be notified before the evidence is destroyed; to consult with a sexual assault counselor; and to information regarding protective orders and victim compensation.

It was amended to clarify that evidence of an assault will only be preserved until the maximum, applicable statute of limitations expires only if the victim consents to the testing of the evidence. If a survivor doesn’t consent, the evidence will be preserved for two years, according to existing law.

Lawmakers also voted to add a provision that would require the Office of Attorney General, in consultation with the Office of Victim Advocate, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, to develop a protocol for notifying survivors of information relating to evidence gathered from him or her.

OVA would be tasked with disseminating the protocol to police agencies, rape crisis centers, sexual assault counselors and health care facilities. It would also be available on the agencies’ websites.

The other bills would give individuals the ability to provide instructions for the management of their electronic files and digital files through a will, trust or power of attorney after their death; remove “interference with custody of children” from the list of offenses that require a convicted person from registering as a sex offender; expunge the criminal record of individuals who are granted an unconditional pardon by the governor; and remove the sunset provision on legislation that gives the attorney general and district attorney the authority to issue administrative subpoenas for IP addresses in child pornography investigations.

Those bills also move to the full Senate for consideration.